Israel wary as protests engulf Muslim countries


Israel stepped up security after a controversial American film, “Innocence of Muslims,” sparked protests at U.S. embassies in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Sudan, as well as violence in Lebanon. In Libya, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other diplomats were killed.

Several dozen protesters from the Islamic Movement’s northern branch demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on Sept. 13 and held posters with slogans such as “A film that demeans the Prophet Muhammad is a despicable and contemptible act,” “We love Muhammad,” and “We will sacrifice our blood and souls for Muhammad.”

Jerusalem police forces reinforced their presence in the capital due to the expected expansion of the protests. Hundreds of policemen secured the al-Aqsa mosque and other areas within the city. Protests also took place in the Gaza Strip, and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on the U.S. to apologize “before the affront to the Prophet Muhammad in the film in question ignites a revolution in the Islamic nation to preserve the prophet’s honor.”

The intelligence leading up to the embassy attacks will be examined to “see if there was any way of forecasting this violence,” House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in an interview Sept. 13.

President Barack Obama, speaking at a campaign event in Colorado, also vowed that the perpetrators would be punished. “I want people around the world to hear me,” he said. “To all those who would do us harm: No act of terror will go unpunished. I will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America.”

As of Sept. 13, there was no intelligence indicating that what happened in Benghazi was planned, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the investigation into the attack. Intelligence officials said they believe it was more likely that the attack was “opportunistic or spontaneous,” with terrotists taking advantage of the demonstration to launch the assault. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation publicly.

There is also no evidence that the attack was tied to the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, one of the officials said. But the Libyan-based terrorist group Ansar al Shariah is the leading suspect for carrying out the violence, possibly with help from al-Qaida’s main African-based offshoot, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The officials said it may be hard to determine definitively which group was responsible, because many terrorists are members of both.

As far as protests go, it is virtually impossible to predict when a crowd might form and turn violent, according to retired U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, who served as chief of mission at five posts, including Iraq, and is a former director of national intelligence.

“These things can be mobilized on the spur of the moment, set off by a spark,” especially in places such as Egypt and Libya where the ruling strongmen have just fallen, Negroponte said. “When you get rid of authoritarian regimes, there’s little or no institutional framework left …That’s why there's disorder and chaos” that is so easily hijacked, he said.

Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood called for demonstrations after Friday prayers Sept. 14, as did authorities in Iran and the Gaza Strip. The White House said it was prepared for more protests but stressed that any violence would be unjustified.

“It is important to note that as these protests are taking place in different countries around the world, responding to the movie, that Friday, tomorrow, has historically been a day when there are protests in the Muslim world,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters in Colorado. “And we are watching very closely for developments that could lead to more protests. We anticipate that they may continue.”

Around the world, U.S. missions issued warnings to Americans about demonstrations that could turn violent. More than 50 embassies and consulates released such alerts, the State Department said.

Jewish reaction

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations condemned the attacks, saying there is “no justification and no legitimization for such violence.”

“We hope that all parties, governmental and non-governmental alike, will strive to restore calm and prevent the exploitation of the situation by extremist elements,” the Conference of President said in a statement. 

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said the group affirms “the U.S. government’s statement that those responsible must be held accountable for their actions and brought to justice.”

“The Jewish tradition is unequivocal in its belief that taking one life is akin to destroying the entire world,” Schonfeld said in a statement.

Jewish Council for Pubic Affairs President Rabbi Steve Gutow said, “As a rabbi, American, and human being, I am shocked and heartbroken by this heinous attack.”

“People of goodwill everywhere should stand up and unequivocally condemn these cold blooded murders,” he said in a statement.

Filmmaker’s identity

Sam Bacile—the name of the alleged producer of “Innocence of Muslims”—is a pseudonym, and the real producer is neither Israeli nor Jewish, according to reports.

“I don’t know that much about him,” said Steve Klein, a home insurance salesman from Riverside, Calif., who has been described in several media accounts as a consultant to the film, according to the Atlantic. “I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He’s not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved, Terry Jones (the fundamentalist Christian pastor) is not involved. His name is a pseudonym. All these Middle Eastern folks I work with have pseudonyms. I doubt he’s Jewish. I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign.” 

Californian Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, confirmed that he was involved with “Innocence of Muslims.” Although he denied being Sam Bacile, a phone number called by the Associated Press matched Nakoula’s address. These findings suggest that the film may have been produced by Coptic Christians to protest their persecution in Muslim countries.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Bacile had originally identified himself as a 52-year-old Israeli-American real estate developer from California who raised $5 million from Jewish donors to make the film. News outlets were unable to contact Bacile to confirm his identity. 

Egypt security forces, protesters clash outside U.S. Embassy


Security forces fired teargas to disperse stone-throwing demonstrators near the U.S. embassy in Cairo late on Wednesday, some 24 hours after protesters scaled the walls and tore down the flag over a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

State news agency MENA said some of those present had been injured, but gave no further details.

Live television showed hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the embassy, where late on Tuesday around 2,000 protested outside after some illegally entered the compound, ripped down the flag and burned it.

Washington has a big mission in Egypt, partly because of a huge aid programme that followed Egypt's signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The United States gives $1.3 billion to Egypt's military each year and offers the nation other aid.

Clashes between security forces and protesters continued in side streets near the building into the early hours of Thursday. Reuters witnesses saw protesters carrying petrol bombs and saw smoke billowing from one of the streets leading to the embassy.

MENA said earlier Egypt had arrested four people after Tuesday's demonstration in which protesters blamed the film on the United States.

It said the four people were transferred to the prosecutor's office, adding that security forces were still searching for others who scaled the walls of the U.S. mission.

<i>Writing by Edmund Blair and Shaimaa Fayed; Editing by Alison Williams</i>

Egyptian court sentences 76 in Israeli embassy attack


An Egyptian court sentenced 76 citizens in last September’s attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

Seventy-four of the convicted protesters were given one-year suspended prison sentences on Sunday. One was sent to a juvenile detention center, while a former police officer who fled the country after criticizing the Mubarak regime was sentenced to five years in prison in absentia, the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm reported.

More than 1,000 Egyptians demonstrated at the embassy Sept. 9, 2011, many after an Egyptian Facebook group called on protesters to gather at the embassy and “urinate on the wall.” During the demonstration, protesters tore down the Israeli flag from the high-rise building’s roof for the second time in a month.

Three people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in the riots.

The protesters broke down the 8-foot-high security wall surrounding the embassy compound and entered the building, requiring the evacuation of Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, embassy personnel, their families and Israelis staying at the embassy.

Six security employees stranded in the building were later removed by an Egyptian commando unit during a rescue operation.

The riots took place after six Egyptian security personnel were killed in August 2011 as Israel pursued the bombers of a civilian bus near Eilat.

Cairo embassy rioters given suspended sentences


Dozens of people involved in rioting at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo were given suspended jail sentences.

An Egyptian military court on Monday handed down the six-month suspended sentences to 73 of the protesters for using violence against military officers, according to reports.

More than 1,000 Egyptians demonstrated at the embassy Sept. 9, many after an Egyptian Facebook group called on protesters to gather at the embassy and “urinate on the wall.” During the demonstration, protesters tore down the Israeli flag from the high-rise building’s roof for the second time in a month.

The protesters broke down the 8-foot-high security wall surrounding the embassy compound and entered the building, requiring the evacuation of Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, embassy personnel, their families and Israelis staying at the embassy.

Six security employees stranded in the building were later removed by an Egyptian commando unit during a rescue operation.

Three people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in the riots.

The riots came after six Egyptian security personnel were killed in August as Israel pursued the bombers of a civilian bus near Eilat.

Israeli diplomats return to Cairo embassy


Four Israeli diplomats and security personnel have returned to Israel’s embassy in Cairo after being evacuated amid violent protests.

The envoys—a consul, an adviser and the chief of security and his deputy, according to reports—returned to Cairo to a new building and will deal only with low-level issues in an effort to retain Israel’s diplomatic presence in Egypt, Ynet reported.

They left nearly two weeks ago after Egyptian demonstrators stormed Israel’s embassy in Cairo, necessitating the emergency rescue of its staff by Egyptian commandos.

Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon is not returning to Egypt at this time, Ynet reported.

The envoys’ return comes amid reports by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram that the protesters were paid to attack the embassy.

Protesters questioned by Egyptian security reportedly said they were offered money to whip up the riots. The participants were bused to the area, then given dinner and envelopes containing money, according to the newspaper.

Israel evacuates Jordanian embassy ahead of protest


Israel evacuated its embassy in Jordan, amid fears that a planned anti-Israel protest could turn violent.

The ambassador and staff of the embassy, located in Amman, returned to Israel Wednesday night. Jordanian activists have called for a “million man march” against the embassy for Thursday. The protest was organized on Facebook. A similar demonstration in Egypt lead to the evacuation a week ago of Israel’s embassy in Cairo and the emergency rescue of several members of the embassy’s security staff.

The staff of Israel’s Jordanian embassy regularly return to their homes in Israel on Thursday for the weekend. Their families reside in Israel. The evacuation order sent them home one day earlier, with plans to return on Sunday, according to reports.

Security near the embassy reportedly has been increased.

Egypt, Israel seek normality after embassy storming


Egypt and Israel said on Sunday they wanted a return to normal diplomatic activities after the Israeli ambassador flew home following the storming of the embassy in Cairo during violent protests.

Egypt’s army, which took over when Hosni Mubarak was ousted on February 11, has struggled to quell public fury against Israel since five Egyptian border guards were killed last month when Israel repelled cross-border raiders it said were Palestinian.

The United States called on Egypt to protect the mission. Washington has given billions of dollars in military and other aid since 1979 when Egypt became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Israel said it was in talks about returning Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon and his staff but wanted security assurances.

“The security in front of the embassy has been enhanced,” cabinet spokesman Mohamed Higazy told Reuters. “Returning back to normalcy is the objective for both sides.”

About 16 trucks full of police and security personnel, three buses of military police, two armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles were parked near the embassy on Sunday.

Protesters marched on the embassy on Friday in the second major flare-up since the shooting.

First they tore down a wall erected to protect the embassy. Then they stormed it and clashed with police through the night.

“Those who rip down flags … they are negating peace and the country,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet. He said Israel would stick to the peace deal.

“I am glad there are other forces in Egypt, including the Egyptian government, that are interested in advancing peace.”

An Egyptian security source said Egyptian guards exchanged fire on Sunday with suspected smugglers in the same border area where guards were shot last month. The source said there were no injuries and the group fled into Egyptian territory.

MONITORING THE SCENE

Traffic passed smoothly through a junction that a day before had been strewn with bits of concrete and debris. Charred police vehicles were in a side street near the embassy, located on the upper floors of a tower block next to the Nile.

The front pages of Israeli newspapers carried photographs of jubilant Egyptian flag-waving demonstrators on the balcony of the embassy. Other photos showed a tense Netanyahu, in a polo shirt, monitoring the scene on television.

Some Egyptian newspapers showed scenes of the protests. Al-Akhbar showed protesters breaking down the wall around the embassy with a metal pole and smoke coming from what it said was a document store room in the embassy.

Other newspapers carried photos of army vehicles deployed to secure the area.

In Iran, a fierce opponent of Israel which it refers to as the Zionist entity, one newspaper headline read: “Egyptian revolutionaries seized the den of Zionists.” Media compared it to the 1979 seizure by students of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

“All Muslim governments should close down embassies of the Zionist regime in their countries, before their nations take an action similar to Egyptian revolutionaries,” Iranian MP Alaeddin Boroujerdi was quoted by Fars news agency as saying.

Egypt said it would try those behind the violence swiftly in emergency state security courts. Egypt has detained 111 people in connection with the incident, the official state news agency reported. Three people were killed and more than 1,000 injured.

Many Egyptians sympathize with the sentiments of those demonstrating against Israel, but activists, politicians and ordinary citizens have also criticised the violence.

“I don’t want him (the ambassador) to come back because Israel doesn’t respect anyone, but if they are in our country, then we should be able to protect them,” said Mohamed Kamhawy, 28, an engineer working two blocks from the embassy site.

Ahmed Amr, 23, another engineer, said: “Tearing down the wall was right. They shouldn’t have built it in the first place. But invading the embassy was wrong.”

Some Egyptians are frustrated that Egypt did not take sterner measures against Israel after the border shooting. At the time, Egypt said it would withdraw its ambassador but did not carry through with the threat.

Israel has stopped short of apologising, saying it is still investigating the Egyptian deaths, which occurred during an operation against gunmen who had killed eight Israelis.

Israel is finding itself increasingly at odds with formerly sympathetic states in the region. It is embroiled in a feud with Turkey, once the closest of its few Muslim allies, over an Israeli raid last year that killed nine Turks on a flotilla bound for Gaza.

Egypt’s ties with Israel, though never warm, were a pillar of Mubarak’s foreign policy and buttressed his claim to be a regional mediator. Under Mubarak, displays of hostility to Israel were swiftly crushed by security forces.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Parisa Hafezi in Tehran; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens and David Cowell